By Tirdad Derakhshani | The Philadelphia Inquirer
IT has been a year of big-budget busts at the multiplex as gigantanormous pics such as Ghostbusters, Ben-Hur, X-Men: Apocalypse and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG barely broke even—if that. The epic disaster Ben-Hur cost $100 million to make, and has returned an embarrassing $26 million.
Let studio execs, Wall Street investors and superstar directors fret and feel the angst. Serves ’em right, say we few, we proud, we horror geeks.
Things are different on the side of the demons.
Don’t Breathe, the brilliant sophomore effort by Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) cost a mere $9.9 million and returned $75 million in domestic receipts to become the 25th best-grossing film of the year.
Two other horror films are now in the Top 25 for the year—The Purge: Election Year (No. 23, grossing $79 million) and The Conjuring 2 (No. 19, bringing in $102 million).
With Halloween just around the corner, I think 2016’s best-performing bloodcurdlers are still to come, including two eagerly awaited sequels: Rings (February 3), the latest entry in the mother of all Japanese-horror-inspired franchises; and the more old-fashioned séance sequel Ouija: Origin of Evil (October 21) from one of horror’s top new auteurs, Mike Flanagan (Hush, Before I Wake).
This year, even a horror flick that underperforms can tank better than a star-studded romcom, as the found-footage-sequel Blair Witch proved last week, besting one of the year’s most-anticipated romcoms, Bridget Jones’s Baby.
Director Adam Wingard’s $5-million witchy sequel made $10 million on its opening weekend to land at No. 2 on the box-office charts, and the $35-million comedy featuring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth and Patrick Dempsey opened with an anemic $8.6 million.
It’s just the latest sign that horror—the much-derided, scruffy cousin of drama, the ill-bred sibling of comedy, the uncomfortable neighbor of pornography—officially owns the year.
And that’s just the money side of the Hollywood equation. Creatively, it’s also been a banner year for the genre, with a crop of entries that are more sophisticated, smarter and more beautiful (as it were) than ever.
In addition to the immensely inventive Don’t Breathe, 2016’s horror highlights include Robert Eggers’s remarkable, literate, historic chiller The Witch, the claustrophobic paranoia poem 10 Cloverfield Lane and the unbelievably raw social satire The Invitation.
There’s also filmmaker Danny Perez’s seriously gross freakout, Antibirth. It’s one of my favorites, with a stunning turn by Natasha Lyonne as a stoner who becomes pregnant with an alien baby.
EXQUISITE PLEASURES OF DREAD
What’s driving the hordes toward the blood and the dread, and away from the chariot racers and misunderstood diarists? This year’s best screamfests have captured viewers’ imagination by going back to basics.
Both the home-invasion cautionary tale Don’t Breathe and the supernatural thriller Lights Out plunge the viewer into that most-elemental, visceral cause of fear: darkness.
Don’t Breathe traps three young burglars inside the home of a vicious, blind war veteran (Stephen Lang). It’s set almost entirely in the vet’s claustrophobic, labyrinthine—and pitch-black—house.
The impressively cast Lights Out, which stars Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer, is about a murderous female creature—she has long, dark hair, claws and eyes that burn like fire—that exists in darkness, feeding on darkness itself.
Psychologically, it doesn’t get more basic than 10 Cloverfield Lane, which generates intense anxiety and paranoia by staging a confrontation among three people locked in an underground bunker.
That genre thriller boasts of terrific performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. proving that horror is no longer the exclusive domain of no-name teenage thesps.
Indeed, more and more horror films are using acclaimed actors, including Ethan Hawke and James Ransone (Sinister); Radha Mitchell and Rupert Graves (The Sacrifice); and Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon).
Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall bring class to the recent surrogate pregnancy shocker When the Bough Breaks, about a young woman (Jaz Sinclair) who goes all Fatal Attraction on a couple after agreeing to bear their child.
A superb cast—Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor and Franka Potente—also powered The Conjuring 2 to its great big box office haul.
The Conjuring franchise is the glaring exception to the less-is-more rule: Directed by James Wan, of the Saw films, it takes a page from Marvel’s superhero flicks. This year’s entry was the second in a projected series of movies and spinoffs set in an elaborate mythical world populated by ghost hunters, mediums, ghosts and demons.
I guess blockbusters did have something to teach horror.
SALUTE TO TWO VISIONARIES
I’m not sure today’s horror renaissance would have been possible were it not for the work of two men on either side of the continent.
New York auteur Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, Wendigo) has helped prepare a generation of genre filmmakers through his radically democratic production collective Glass Eye Pix, where directors contribute to one another’s films by pitching in as cinematographers, editors, even actors.
The group has been cited as an influence by Blair Witch director Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett. One of their previous collaborations was the smart slasher You’re Next, which featured a cameo by Fessenden.
Across the continent, producer Jason Blum has kept the indie spirit alive in his corner of Hollywood. Few people have done more for the proliferation of high-concept, high-impact, low-budget genre fare.
Blum’s career took off when he had the wisdom to recognize the promise of newbie writer-director Oren Peli’s little $15,000 found-footage demon story Paranormal Activity. Released in 2007, it went on to make $108 million domestically and spawned five sequels.
Blum’s company, Blumhouse Productions, has been responsible for some of the decade’s biggest horror franchises, including Insidious, The Purge, Sinister and The Conjuring. Next month’s Ouija: Origin of Evil is a sequel to the 2014 Blumhouse hit Ouija. In January Blumhouse will likely ride the Amityville name to cultural and box-office acclaim with Amityville: The Awakening.
A modern-day Roger Corman, Blum allows talented filmmakers to realize their vision—within a modest budget. It’s the kind of freedom that would be all but impossible for directors who are put in charge of $150-million blockbusters and expected to conform to the input of a mass of nervous producers and execs.
Blum’s films can go head-to-head with blockbusters because they also have studio backing. In 2014 Blumhouse signed a 10-year first-look deal with Universal Pictures.
But with success comes danger: Wide distribution and box-office success leads to the proliferation of sequels and franchises, of bloated films that have lost their edge.
You know, like those summer blockbusters no one wanted to watch.